George Tyrrell: Modernist Theologian (1861 - 1909): What he said he said


The unusual title is intended to draw the reader's attention to the fact that many original thinkers are quoted and discussed by academics and others who truly believe they have understood and sufficiently extrapolated the ideas and notions of an original thinker. And in most cases they probably have, but not always. I suggest George Tyrrell (1861-1909) as a case in point. Most academics discuss Tyrrell from an historical perspective in the context of the Modernist Crisis in the Catholic Church. [1] However, David Schultenover focuses on a non-historical approach to Tyrrell. Shultentenhover writes of his approach that its genre is "intellectual history as distinguished from institutional history...[and] it aims to describe not the 'modernist movement' but the intellectual development of a major contributor to the 'movement' by focusing on the man as the key to his thought." [2]

In this essay I focus on Tyrrell's intellectual development as expressed in the Prefaces of his books. In the preface of a book an author usually says what he said he said in developing the main thrust of his argument. Further, through a critical reading of a Preface we encounter the personality of the author from whose ideas we come to appreciate those characteristics that endear the author us. Martin Thornton expresses the notion this way:

As we learn of Caesar's character from his exploits, of Shakespeare's from his plays, of Hume's from his works, so the character, the real personality if not the physical image of Jesus is discernible from his history, activities and sayings as recorded in the gospels. [3]

In Tyrrell's case, I suggest that we can appreciate HIS intellectually meditative character disclosed in the Prefaces of his books which has been somewhat overlooked by historians. A brief synopsis of one aspect of the intellectual climate of his day can appreciate his intellectually meditative context in which he thought and wrote.

A Particular Intellectual Climate

Tyrrell lived " at a time when religion seemed fated to be submerged and undermined by the vast torrent of secular knowledge that was sweeping over the intellectual world." [4] This torrent of secular knowledge threatened to discount the intellectual meditative approach to religious experience. This threat was common to the intellectual worlds of the British Isles and the Continent. David Wells notes that Tyrrell displayed in his writings an Irish heart but he had a German mind which characterized him as straddling both worlds. Mary Green suggests that in Tyrrell's day "Catholic religious thought had not kept pace with English religious thought in general, whether sound or poor, nor with Catholic and general religious thought in most countries on the Continent." [5] Of German intellectual meditative thinking, Joseph Gostwick notes that it had as its source earnest religious feelings which endeavoured to attain a union of thought that could never be the result of knowledge founded on the understanding alone. The development that Gostwick observed, that "the 'rights' of intuition and immediate feeling -- these rights so long suppressed under the tyranny of logic -- were now allowed to be as valid as the conclusions of reasoning processes", nourished Tyrrell's intellectually meditative character. [6]

Further, the Programme of Moderism, initiated by the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis of Pius X, provided a context for Tyrrell's original thinking. Scholasticism was a product of its own age. Tyrrell recognized that the synthesis it provided no longer met the needs of a modern and scientific age. He probed into religious experience and with the aid of scientific thinking desired to express intellectual meditative understanding in a new frame of reference. In Leslie Lilley's words, Tyrrell could "no longer accept a demonstration of God supported by those 'idols of the tribe' -- the Aristotelian conceptions of motion, of causality, of contingency, of finality." [7] Percy Gardner suggests that some knowledge of Hegel's philosophy would help in understanding the context of Tyrrell's thinking. Gardner quotes Tyrrell as saying: "The process through which I have reached my present position will appear as a wavering, rather than as a straight line, a result that should facilitate the critic's task." [8] As well, Bernard McReardon acknowledges Hegel's influence on Tyrrell's thought. [9]

A contemporary of Tyrrell, Hakluyt Egerton, alludes to the meditative aspect of Tyrrell's thinking. When Tyrrell speaks of "Divine Immanence", Egerton does not believe that Tyrrell means Pantheism, the doctrine that God is the substance of all finite particulars. Egerton writes, "Undoubtedly, Father Tyrrell believes that God is in man - although whether by way of mere indwelling, or as a part of man's composite nature, is not clear." [10] Egerton also notes that when Tyrrell distinguishes ordinary religious experience from revelational experience he does not refer to the objective source of the experience but refers to the experience itself " by a description of its ' subjective' character - to its character as a psychological happening." [11] In a lecture entitled, "Revelation and Experience", Tyrrell wrote a response to Egerton in which he sets forth this distinction. "Faith and knowledge cannot be confronted, because their realms are not the same." [12]

This, then, was the particular intellectual climate of the day in which Tyrrell thought and wrote and which shaped his chararcter.

Tyrrell's Works

In the Introduction to her book, Letters from a "Modernist", Mary Jo Weaver offers advice on how to approach Tyrrell's letters. She encourages the reader to overcome the temptation to follow theories about Tyrrell by suggesting that "we ought to search Tyrrell himself for an understanding." [13] For the most part I follow her advice in this essay. Through the Prefaces and Introductions to his books, considered chronologically, I search Tyrrell's thoughts for a sense of a meditative and contemplative character reflected in his thinking. Comments from others are introduced when they support this perspective.

i) 1900 Nova et Vera: Informal Meditations

The Preface to this book was written in 1897. Tyrrell presents these meditations informally and leaves the reader to supply any practical applications deemed necessary by the reader. Wisdom, which arises from meditation, is often hidden from the clever and prudent and revealed to little ones. Such wisdom "does not leave them as it finds them in their ignorance and littleness" but rather gives them understanding, he says. In Maude Petre's assessment of this book she writes:

The influence of this book can best be understood through a knowledge of the class of mind and soul to which it was primarily addressed. It was not written (or preached) mainly for the outside world; but rather for Catholics, and for Catholics earnest in the spiritual life. Many such had been trained to accept as inevitable a certain systematised form of prayer...and to many silent suffers in convents, but not convents only, the informal meditations of 'Nova et Vera' came as a breath of fresh air into a close room. [14]

These meditations are not presented in any particular order since Tyrrell saw no specific advantage to be gained by logical classification. He writes: "They have been recorded as they occurred from time to time, spontaneously and unsought for, in no way as parts of a whole." He cautions the reader to be aware of the way understanding is expressed by those within the Church and those outside the Church. The intent may not be the same even though the vocabulary is identical. Despite the human emphasis in these meditations, Tyrrell assures his readers that "no one will be likely to find fault with them as neglecting to give due emphasis to the Divinity of our Saviour and to the mystical aspect of Catholic Christianity." He concludes the Preface by stating that the purpose of the book is to start the spiritual stream running where it has run dry.

ii) 1901, External Religion: Its Use and Abuse

In this book, Tyrrell's directs his lectures towards practice rather than speculation. He acknowledges that the Catholic and Protestant religion are animated by the same spirit that characterizes the whole of religious experience. Practice is to be preferred to theory for pastoral interpretation. This is so since there is potential for abuse in addressing controversial issues when individuals theoretically "first fix their beliefs, and then fabricate reasons in support of them." By practising one's belief one achieves a better understanding than by speculating about them. We are reminded that religion is an experiential interpretation of our in-born religious instincts and appetites, originally known unconsciously, but which are brought to our consciousness by Christ. In this book he is writing with the British public in mind and his intent is to "let Truth appear, and then bid men, 'Come and see!' And of these, some will remain and some will go away, according to the power of seeing they bring with them." Whatever manner an individual uses to apprehend the truth that manner must be susceptible to the understanding of others.

iii) 1902, The Faith of the Millions
(First Series Chapters I - XII; Second Series Chapters XIII - XXII)

In the Preface to these meditations Tyrrell acknowledges that the context of English and Continental Catholicism differs theologically. Further, he acknowledges that these meditations may be understood differently by English and Continental readers. However, what English and Continental Catholicism share in common is that its "religion must not only satisfy and equal [felt needs], but must transcend and promise to expand indefinitely man's higher spiritual capacities." Through interpreting Christ's teachings in this collection of meditations Tyrrell has come to realize that ignorance is less an obstacle to enlightened understanding than false learning and mental deficiencies. Regarding the faith (of the millions), his perspective is that Christianity is not added to 'complete' human nature, rather, Christianity is inherent in human nature.

iv) 1903, The Church and the Future

I have been unable to locate a copy of this book during the writing of this article. However, in her Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell, Maude Petre reproduces a letter Tyrrell wrote to von Hügel in 1903 about a book he intended to call, Catholicism Re-stated. These notions eventually appeared as The Church and the Future. [15] Tyrrell writes:

I regard the 'Catholicising' of Christianity as a per se result of the Spirit of Christ, and not as a perversion or accident; but I perceive in that 'Catholicising' process (as in the Scriptures) a divine and a human , an inspired and an uninspired element; and I apply the quod semper, etc test in a practical way, sc, beliefs and institutions which are proved, experimentally, to foster the Christian spirit, ipso facto, are proved to be true to that spirit. And by Christian spirit I mean that spirit which spoke from the beginning in the prophets and men of faith, and found its most docile organ in Christ, and which still speaks in the corporate life of the Church, so far as holiness is found there, i.e., I make the Saints and not the theologians the teachers of Christianity. The Spirit of Christ rather than Christ Himself is the creator of the Church - or rather of the whole organism of the pre- and post-Christian Church of which Christ is the bond, and of which no part, not even Christ, exhausts the possibilities.

v) 1903, Lex Orandi or Prayer and Creed

This book developed from an essay intended "for private circulation, with the title 'Religion as a Factor of Life' under the pseudonym of Dr. Ernest Engels." [16] Tyrrell assumes, in this work, that our spiritual nature developes within our religious sense which "furnishes an experimental criterion of belief." In the human spirit there is a longing for the transcendent God, a longing that can never be satisfied. This bitter truth arises from experience. It is a difference in kind, not in degree, which leads to a life of solid value. He writes: "That we are dissatisfied, not only with what the Ideal gives us, but, by anticipation, with all it could ever possibly give us is proof that there is a higher love-power within us which must seek its object elsewhere." Tyrrell notes that one who seeks after divinity in life, "may give himself to God's work, God's will, God's cause, and yet not give himself to God." Tyrrell acknowledges the Augustinian perspective in his thinking and remarks that the finite is transfigured by an illuminating grace, encountered in experience.

vi) 1904, Hard Sayings: A Selection of Meditations and Studies

Tyrrell wrote the Introduction in 1898. He assembled this group of meditations with the hope that "the unity of their effect" would be felt upon the reader's mind. These meditations and conferences were written at various times over a number of years. Maude Petre descibes this text as "clear proof and expression of the militantly orthodox phase through which he passed." [17]

In writing these meditations and studies he attempted to counter an excessive rationalizing of the principles of Catholic Christianity. He makes no claim to have succeeded. He reminds the reader that these meditations "will serve to bring to our mind all the meaning and expression of a face if only it be already familiar to us by experience." Maude Petre's assessment of Tyrrell's effort reads: "The first object of these pages is, then, to make Catholics 'appropriate' that which they often content themselves to hold by mere inheritance." [18] Where one meditation may be weak another may be strong, Tyrrell says, but some image of the whole truth may shape itself in the mind of the spiritual pilgrim. He cautions against a narrow rationalism that would encourage the seeker of wisdom "to apply the methods and criteria of the 'exact sciences' to matters of a wholly different order; to be abhorrent of all that savours of mysticism." Ultimate truths, concerned with the beginning and end of our existence, are set at the limit of our intellectual horizon yet our minds are made for understanding what lies between them. That is, we are made in order to understand the movements and processes that disclose these ultimate truths framing the beginning and end of our existence. It is not our human need that determines our faith in God, but rather, what God has done in Christ out of love for us determines our faith, Tyrrell says.

Tyrrell warns that if true religion does not feed the mind's craving for the mysterious, the wonderful, the supernatural, then the mind will feed "on the garbage of any superstition that is offered it." But this is false mysticism, or self-delusion, and "no more discredits the true mysticism of à Kempis or of St Teresa, than spiritualism discredits spirits or jugglery discredits the miracles of Christ."

Reason is to help us in spiritual matters encountered in the mutable circumstances of human life. The collection of meditations in Hard Sayings is to be understood as a type of "disciplina arcani" based on Jesus parables which for those who could not understand "would have been only to their ruin and not the their resurrection", says Tyrrell. Tyrrell shares with us a truth that he has come to realize. The human heart is moved by the ethical conceptions of the Catholic religion. That religion embraces the clear conviction that she alone knows what is in man, and holds the secrets of life's problems; that she alone has balm for the healing of the nations; that she alone can answer firmly and infallibly what all are asking, with an answer harsh at first sounding, and austere, but on reflection kind and consolatory, and, like the 'hard sayings' of her Master, 'full of grace and truth.'

vii) 1906, A Much Abused Letter

Originally, Tyrrell did not intend to make this letter public. However, he justifies public publication because under the altered circumstances: "I am convinced that such a course will remove far more scandal than it will cause." In the Introduction he explains his reasons for changing his mind. They are: 1) that the letter in question is founded on ideas written two or three years earlier, 2) that the letter can only be judged in light of its original context, not read in extracts, 3) that parts of the published letter were not written by him but he does agree with their contents. Such parts, he maintains, resulted from adaptations to local circumstances.

viii) 1906, Lex Credendi: A Sequal to Lex Orandi

Lex Orandi was intended as a "practical devotion" or pastoral theology and only secondarily as speculative theology. It is the purpose of theology to comment on revelation. Tyrrell acknowledged that the 'heart has its reasons' but it also has its language. There is need to have some kind of dogmatic conception for religious expression, but at the same time in Tyrrell's mind, the church is not a school to translate prophecy into the exact language of thought. Rather, prophetic language must be universal. Of this book Tyrrell writes: "It is not then directly as an expression of my own private judgment and spiritual orientation that I say the Credo, but as an expression of the Church's collective Faith, which I desire to share and appropriate, and which I acknowledge as a rule or norm." It is the substance of the Creed, not its form, that Tyrrell shares with us in this work. He seeks to share an experience of the Giver, not the gift; an experience of the spirit of Christ, not the teachings of Christianity; an experience of life itself rather than the implications of a Christian life.

ix) 1907, Oil and Wine

In this book Tyrrell acknowledges writing as one seeking the truth, "not from on high, as a teacher, but as an inquirer on the same platform as my readers" and as one who is just as blind as they. He has faith that the Spirit of Truth and Righteousness gradually reveals itself to the seeker of wisdom and works its out its fuller manifestation in the community, not the individual. Spiritual progress comes with many a personal rude awakening, and "it is not 'private judgement' if, when it has irresistibly declared itself, we prefer the sovereign and most universal to any subordinate rule or ruler." Of the Christ revealed in the Gospel, Tyrrell believed: "His spirit is not so concentrated and confined in the institutional church as not to be also diffused throughout Christendom and throughout humanity, where faith may often be found of a kind unknown in Israel." Concerning his thoughts in this book, Tyrrell remarks that as unauthorized as they may be these "ministrations of the Word" are offered as oil and wine to bind up the wounds of the "half-murdered wayfarer." They are not offered as the "oil of consolation and the wine of spiritual stimulus."

x) 1907, Through Scylla and Charydbis or the Old Theology and the New.

In the Preface Tyrrell expresses the hope that others, more skilled than himself, and once the controversy over his ideas has subsided "may perhaps take them up and turn them to better account." Of these individuals, Tyrrell writes: "We cannot sift them out from the mass, but there is always a minority, a saving leaven, whose judgment is in truth the judgment of God, and before whom we stand as before an invisible eye that watches and judges, condemns and acquits." To my mind, Martin Thornton may be among them. [19]

xi) 1909 [1994], Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier

This book lacks a Preface or Introduction. However, the Foreword of the book is written by Gabriel Daly. He provides an historical and doctrinal perspective of the issues and the intellectual climate of the time that influenced Tyrrell's thinking. Daly understands this book to be "a faithful reflection of his most typical attitudes and convictions."

xii) 1909 [1963], Christianity at the Crossroads

The Foreword of this book was written by Alex Vidlar, the Introduction by Maude Petre and the Preface by Tyrrell. Vidlar notes that those who were influenced by Tyrrell acknowledged that "they had found that he had a rare gift for interpreting the Christian faith and for illuminating the spiritual life." Maude Petre speaks of Tyrrell's peace of soul, his undisturbed friendship, study, prayer and character which were the true goods in his life. He was not ambitious for fame or notoriety. He did not seek controversy but rather sought a calm understanding of controversial issues.

Tyrrell hoped for a synthesis between the essentials of Christianity and the academic criticism current in the theological debates among the Modernists. He noted that scientific truth and religious truth must each be examined by the principles of their respective disciplines.When he attempted this synthesis he realized that the discord initially caused was much less than expected. According to Maude Petre this book that is a calm "examination of the value of this life, a study of its relation to the next."

xiii) 1914, Essays on Faith and Immortality

Published by Maude Petre after Tyrrell's death she wrote, in the Introduction to this book, that Tyrrell possessed a "strange self-detachment" that fitted him for addressing "a problem which some of us can hardly endure to face." She arranged these essays in light of Tyrrell's intention of addressing this problem, ie, of faith and imortality. Of these essays she wrote: "[They ] will serve their purpose if they do what their author was always satisfied to do, namely to give the lead to some other mind which can carry the search a little further."

Tyrrell's Works

1900, Nova et Vera: Informal Meditations, London: Longmans Green.

1901, External Religion: Its Use and Abuse, St Louis: B Herder.

1902, The Faith of the Millions, London: Longmans Green.

1903, The Church and the Future, Edinburgh: Turnbull & Spears.

1903, Lex Orandi or Prayer and Creed, London: Longmans Green.

1904, Hard Sayings: A Selection of Meditations and Studies, London: Longmans Green.

1906, A Much-abused Letter, London: Longmans Green.

1906, Lex Credendi: A Sequel to Lex Orandi, London: Longmans Green.

1907, Oil and Wine, London: Longmans Green.

1907, Through Scylla and Charybdis or the Old Theology and the New, London: Longmans Green.

1909 [1994], Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier, Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates.

1909 [1963], Christianity at the Crossroads, London: George Allen & Unwin.

1914, Essays on Faith and Immortality, London: Edward Arnold.


[1] The extensive bibliographies in Weaver (1981) and Wells (1981) support this statement.

[2] Schultenover, D (1981:vii). George Tyrrell: In Search of Catholicism. Shepherdstown: Patmos.

[3] Thornton, M (1968:100). The Function of Theology. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

[4] May, Lewis (1932:9). Father Tyrrell and the Modernist Movement. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

[5] Green, M (1978:28). George Tyrrell: The Modernist as Spiritual Director. PhD thesis, Saint Louis University, (UMI Dissertation Services).

[6] Gostwick, J (1882:397). German Culture and Christianity: Their Controversy in the Time 1770-1880. London: Norgate.

[7] Lilley, L (1909:124). The Programme of Modernism: A Reply to the Encyclical of Pius X, Pascedi Dominici Gregis. London: Fisher Unwin.

[8] Gardner, P (1926:49). Modernism in the English Church. London: Methuen.

[9] McReardon, B (1970). Roman Catholic Modernism. London: Adams & Charles Black.

[10] Egerton, H (1909:199). Father Tyrrell's Modernism: An Expository Criticism of "Through Scylla and Charybdis" in an Open Letter to Mr Athelstan Riley. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

[11] Egerton, H (1909:187). Father Tyrrell's Modernism. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

[12] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, p. 360). Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell. London: Arnold.

[13] Weaver, M J (1981:xvii). Letters from a "Modernist". Shepherdstown: Patmos.

[14] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, pp. 62/64). Autobiography and Life.

[15] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, p. 187). Autobiography and Life.

[16] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, p. 176). Autobiography and Life.

[17] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, p. 61). Autobiography and Life.

[18] Petre, M (1912: v. 2, p. 66). Autobiography and Life.

[19] Thornton, Martin (1968). The Function of Theology. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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